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Out of Step

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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO

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The ballerina dashed off a final volley of pirouettes and sprang toward her partner, who flip-flopped her neatly over his shoulder. With her legs splayed open across the underside of her wide-brimmed tutu, you'd think he was brandishing a big floppy pancake. It wasn't an elegant finish, but it was a grabber, especially since the rest of the program had felt like getting stuck in a bog -- and, predictably, the crowd stood and roared its thanks.

"Finally, a real success!" exclaimed one patron on his way up the aisle at the War Memorial Opera House, where he had just seen the last of 10 world premieres performed in three days by the San Francisco Ballet. Wonderful for him that he was pleased, but I was merely weary. Too many bad ballets, too few steps forward.

The company didn't envision its ambitious New Works Festival, the centerpiece of the San Francisco Ballet's 75th-anniversary season, as a microcosm of what's wrong with the ballet world. But the fact that this large outlay of money, time and talent -- unprecedented in its scope -- produced more mediocrity than revelation points to a big problem for ballet. Self-renewal is not its strong suit. Ballet does well with the old and the familiar -- whether traditional story ballets such as "Sleeping Beauty" and "Swan Lake," or their plotless offspring, the tighter, sexier undressed works of George Balanchine. This is largely what the ballet runs on these days. But in recent years, producing new masterpieces (not just new pieces) has become a challenge.

As a result, ballet companies rely on a stupefying amount of recycling. Surely no other art form has as limited a canon as the ballet world, which deals primarily in chestnuts leavened by a few contemporary hits.

This season, according to the service organization Dance/USA, the performances of 60-some ballet companies with budgets topping $1 million consisted mainly of full-length standbys ("Cinderella," "Dracula" and "Romeo and Juliet" are especially hot this year, in addition to "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty") and short works by Balanchine, Twyla Tharp and Paul Taylor. About one-third of this field, says John Munger, the group's director of research and information, is presenting occasional new material -- premieres created by their overstretched artistic directors or an adventuresome company member or one of a roving band of variously skilled freelance choreographers who make the rounds of regional troupes. Gauging by historical precedent, few of these new works will have much shelf life.

That is, unless they are made by a select few expensive and hard-to-get artists: Tharp, Taylor, Mark Morris, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky.

Ballet's creativity problem feels especially ironic at a time when the training, career longevity and skill level of most dancers has never been higher.

"There's no shortage of good dancers. There's a shortage of courage," said Morris, the day after the San Francisco Ballet premiered his "Joyride" at the New Works Festival.

I have to agree. There's also a shortage of time. Balanchine, a ballet machine, was an anomaly, but other 20th-century masters -- Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins -- could let ideas germinate for months, even years, and they weren't pulled in 20 directions at once because the demand wasn't the same in their day. Works of art are rarely crafted on the fly, but longer gestation periods cost more. The quick turnaround required of most choreographers today produces too many flattened, undercooked works. As a result, ballet audiences are growing alarmingly accustomed to repetition and mediocrity.

Against this backdrop, the San Francisco Ballet's New Works Festival had been ripe with possibility. It was an outrageously grand affair: $3 million poured into three programs, made up entirely of new material and danced consecutively throughout the two-week run in late April. The creative process, with the dancers sequestered in studios as one choreographer after another arrived to work with them, had stretched across five months.


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